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Christmas Land - Part 1

"Jack, Jack! We've got new kids down in slot 22!"

He was reading a new book and didn't really want to stop, but he marked the page with a paper bookmark and carefully put the tome away in the current hiding place, before clambering through the crowded space to the front door of the trailer. His stepmother was planted in front of the TV, half dozing.

"I'll be back later, Kristin," he said, give her arm a light shake.

"Whatever. If you're not here when your old man comes in, then find your own food someplace else. I mean it."

Jack grinned at her. The warning wasn't necessary. "I'll get a bite somewhere. Don't worry about me. You do what you have to do." He felt sorry for the thin woman, trapped by ignorance and fear into a life with little hope outside the flashing box she watched almost every hour of her waking day.

"Thanks, kid. You're okay," she said, punching his arm.

The second he was outside the door, Jack began to run in the direction of the trailer across the road. He dashed up and down the broken sidewalk several times as he waited for Riley to rise from the tiny porch and join him.

The two boys broke into dance, easily matching steps as each one took a turn directing their moves. They finished with somersaults and collapsed, laughing, on the tiny patch of grass that passed for a lawn.

"Nice move!" Jack said, playfully yanking Riley's sleeve.

"You like it? I saw it on TV the other night. Some old black and white movie. I figured I could do it, so I've been practicing."

Yeah, it's clever. We'll teach it t the other guys."

"It's kind of hard."

"So only the first string. But we could do an easy version for the others."

Riley pondered. "You'll help me convert it, right?"

Jack nodded, sitting up. "So, tell me about the new kids," he prompted.

"Three. A fat boy, skinny girl and toddler. Dressed like they picked out their own clothes," he added.

"How old, do you think?"

Riley shrugged. "The toddler is probably too little to get it, but the other two are old enough."

Jack pulled a small notebook out of his back pocket and handed it to Riley. "Can you get me names? I'll wait a couple of days and then head by to see what's what."

Riley took the notebook, nodding. "Sure. Glad to. You need any help today?"

Jack stood up and dusted himself off. "Naw. I'll just make the rounds, and see how everybody is doing. Have you been working on yours?"

Riley stood and gave Jack a shove, snorting. "Are you kidding? The minute school started, I got mine going. I'm gonna have the biggest pile you ever saw."

Jack's crooked tooth smile was so wide it seemed to split his face in two. "That's the spirit! But we won't start the songs until the first of October. Some guys are really pushing it, but I don't want anybody to get bored before Thanksgiving."

The both laughed. "Yeah, Buster was back wearing an iPod by mid-November last year. Of course, he had to give it back to his pop a few days later, so that was okay."

Jack sobered. "I had to have a talk with him about that. I was afraid he'd taken the iPod without asking."

"No shit? I didn't know. So what was the skinny?"

"His ma let him use it while his father was gone getting a new job. She's dumber than a post. What was she thinking? We're all lucky Buster didn't get the crap knocked out of him. His father is one mean bastard." Jack looked around him, making sure they couldn't be overheard. He tried to keep all cursing to a minimum when there were adults around.

"You're telling me!" Riley punched the air, bouncing lightly on his feet. "The guy smacked me around for cutting through his yard, remember?"

Jack frowned and nodded. "I remember. I remember all the times kids get a raw deal." He gazed off, his stare hard. "I can forgive, but I don't forget. Somebody needs to remember," he added, talking softly to himself.

"Buster's about the best kid I ever knew," Riley said, turning his punching into an impromptu dance move. "But he's not the brightest bulb, is he?"

Jack laughed. "Naw, not too smart, but it doesn't matter. He's a good guy. He'd do anything for anybody. And he's always smiling. He's even nice to those GloomDooms at school."

'GloomDoom' was their own special slang for those who were anti-Christmas -- and Jack knew there were many who fit this bill. A quick google on the school computer had assured him that the world was full of negativity, even when it came to holiday as potentially positive as Christmas.

"You wanna hear a GloomDoom, you should hear my Uncle," Riley offered, running his fingers through his straight, black hair like a make-shift comb. "All last night he was bitching about traffic and shoppers, like it was already the fault of the Christmas crowd. Whatta ya think, is he crazy, or what?"

"Well, the stores push the holidays earlier every year. You have to figure how to deal with that and not let it make you crazy, like I'm always tellin' all of you. It helps when you remember the whole thing about the economy and stuff."

"Tell me that again later, will ya? I think we could all use reminding." Riley headed toward Space 22, while Jack moved in the direction of the front of the park, yanking another notebook from his front pocket. This one had a battered ballpoint pen stuck in the center, and Jack clicked the end before opening the front of the book.

After reaching the front end of the park, Jack moved to the first street that led into the trailer park. He had several paths he used, varying them according to his mood. Space 1 was located here, and he glanced needlessly down to see it underlined on the small, lined page. He almost always came here first, but not because it was Space 1.

Jack didn't knock at the front door. He could hear the sound of raised voices as he ducked around the side of the trailer, heading to the back corner window. He clambered up on a wooden box he'd conveniently left over a year ago, and leaned against the windown pane, listening. Then he lightly rapped his usual signal.

The window covering was pulled back to reveal the merry face of Lucy, who many of the kids called Lucky. Her mother had recently cut off Lucy's hair while in one of her typical rages, but she'd been unable to take away the lovely gleam, in spite of the uneven lengths. Jack thought that Lucy's hair was a reflection of her; the bouncing red curls were as irrepressible as Lucy's personality. Her green eyes seemed to always be smiling, even when Lucy pressed her lips together to hide her usual grin. She was the personification of joy, and seeing her always raised Jack's spirits.

Lucy glanced behind her before sliding the window open. "Hi, Jack!"

Jack nodded a greeting, grinning, before speaking softly. "They're at it again, huh?"

Lucy matched his subdued volume. "Yeah, he came home and she was out. I thought he'd start in about supper, so I got it ready the minute I came home from school. But you know how they are. He's yelling about looking for work and how she's lazy and it's the same old thing. GloomDoomers, the both of them," she added, sighing.

Lucy's parents were worse than just GloomDoomers, Jack thought. They were angry, unhappy people, who had married unwillingly and failed to follow whatever dreams they might have had. 'They were kids once, too,' was Jack mantra, helping him to hate the actions of such adults, rather than the people behind those actions.

"Can you come out?" He tried to keep from sounding too hopeful, knowing the answer before she spoke.

"Sorry, Jack. They'll both go more ballistic than they already are if I suggest it. Besides, I've got tons of homework. You might trying doing some of that yourself, now and then." Her smile was wide and her tone teasing.

Jack ducked his head and yanked on his hair. His hands were almost always busy, as if the energy inside him could barely be contained. "Yeah, one of these days."

"I've been working on my snowflakes, anyway. Want to see a couple?"

He nodded, and Lucy's head disappeared, letting the brightly colored towel fall back to hide the inside of her small room. She quickly returned, holding up two paper snowflakes made of blue construction paper, gaily covered with glitter.

"Lucky, those are wonderful!" Jack said, pressing his face closer.

Her pale cheeks turned rosy. "Thanks. The glue was so thick it kind made globs, but it still looks okay, I think."

"I need to get more work done on mine. I'm not as good at it as the rest of you."

"You have other important stuff to do, Jack. You shouldn't worry about it. We'll make plenty of them, wait and see!"

Jack pushed his hair out of his eyes and let his fingers trace one of the snowflakes. "I just want to hold up my end," he answered, tone serious.

Lucy's expression softened. "You don't realize, do you?" She shook her head, making her curls dance. "You're the heart and soul of what we do. We couldn't do it without you, Jack."

It was Jack's turn to be embarrassed, and he ducked his head, making his hair fall back across his strong features. "Naw. You'd do fine. You've got it. The Christmas spirit," he added, passion in his words.

"I'd better go." Lucy's tone was reluctant, but she was glancing behind her, expression worried.

"Yeah, yeah. Me, too. You think you can get out tomorrow? Or maybe I could phone you later?"

"The phone's turned off." Her voice was matter-of-fact, but her eyes were sad.

"Never mind. I'll see you at school."

"Try and do some homework before then," Lucy said, giggling.

He grinned at her and tugged at his hair. "Okay. I'll try."

He jumped down and was quickly off, ready to head out and finish his rounds. There were a lot of kids to check up on, and Jack took this role seriously.

He headed down the main road, which was fairly narrow compared to city streets, though by far the widest street in the trailer park. There were unnecessary speed bumps spaced randomly along the street, making it less savory to drivers than the other streets in the park. Combined with the many potholes, it was an unhappy adventure for anyone foolish enough to try maneuvering it by car in heavy rain. But walkers like Jack found it better than the uneven and broken sidewalk, which could trip up even the most careful stride.

He knocked on several doors, and was usually greeted by other kids, who were glad to see him. Most adults greeted him pleasantly, as well, though there were some who glared when they opened their doors. It took him an hour to finish, even though the park was relatively small in size.

When he'd finished, he headed outside the park, and walked up the busy street toward McDonald's, where he bought several dollar menu items. He sat in a corner and glanced over his notebook as he ate, watching people come and go and greet the friends he saw.

Back home he went directly to the tiny room in the back that served as his bedroom. He glanced around, checking to see that his father hadn't been inside. Nothing was disturbed, so he pulled out his backpack and sat down on his bed to start his schoolwork. He glanced across the room at the pile of pristine blue construction paper that sat on the board he used as a desk, wondering if he should ignore his homework in favor of the snowflake project. Common sense won out, and he continued until he'd finished his assignments, before peeping out the door of his room.

Kristin saw him and waved him out. "Your old man didn't come home. Come share some popcorn with me."

They sat side-by-side on the small sofa, eating the microwave popcorn as they watched TV. Jack's attention wasn't focused on the show, so he finished up and headed to the bathroom and then to bed, wishing he was sleepier.

He fell asleep almost the minute his head hit the pillow.

===

Sammy, the new boy, was a pain in the ass. Jack had tried to talk to him three times during the week and had been annoyed each time. Sammy was blustering and a bully, using his considerable weight to shove other kids around. His younger sister was as thin as he was fat, her whispy hair lying lank on her shoulders and her clothes hanging loose on her tiny frame. Her name was Sally, but Jack had been unable to worm even one word out of the painfully shy girl.

When at home, Sally seemed to always be caring for her younger brother, Bobby, who scrambled quickly around, trying to elude her. He was a happy child, always grinning behind a layer of jam and peanut, mixed liberally with dust and mud.

Jack had yet to see any adults at Space 22, though he had seen a car parked beside it late at night. He didn't know how many adults lived there, or what relation they were to the three kids, but it was clear they spent little, if any, time with them.

Jack was convinced he could get through to Sammy, given the chance. But it was tough sometimes to manage it at school, and there seemed to be so many other tasks that needed his attention when he got home each day.

"That Sammy. What are you gonna do about him, Jack?" Riley asked, as they danced up the middle of the park's main street.

Jack jumped up and over the speed bump, turning the action into a clever move. Riley quickly copied him, then they went back to repeat their steps in unison.

"Nice!" Riley shouted. "We could teach that to the others," he added. Jack nodded. They were both grinning and panting.

"Sammy will be okay, Riley," Jack assured him, after he caught his breath. "I just gotta work him a bit. I don't know, he's probably that way because he's left alone so much."

"Well, I don't know how much he's expected to do around their place, but it seems to me like Sally does all the work."

"Maybe, but I've only been inside once, so it's early to judge." Jack liked to give people the benefit of the doubt, knowing it was easy to be fooled by first impressions.

"He's a big bully and I've had to knock him upside the head once, already," Riley added, giving Jack a quick sidelong glance.

"Don't. If you start knocking him around we'll end up with trouble. He'll whine to someone, or he'll get worse. You're just showing him that it's okay to pick on people." Jack tried to keep the lecture out of his voice, but wasn't entirely successful.

"Sorry, Jack. Hey, I knew you'd look at it that way. But you wouldn't let him steal money from little kids, either."

"What?!" The word was an explosion. Jack was quickly outraged, balling his hands into fists and bouncing on his toes.

"I know, I know. I should have told you right away. But it was earlier today and I didn't have a chance until now. I was trying to figure out what to say."

Jack continued to bounce up and down, sucking air as he tried to calm himself. "I'll take care of it," he finally said, voice gruff. "I don't want him giving anybody a hard time, but stealing is something else. Nobody around here can afford to lose any money. We've got to make it clear right away."

But how hard up was Sammy? And what did he need the money for? The questions immediately popped into Jack's head. There were always at least two sides to every situation, after all.

"I'll go now and talk to him," he said, heading in the direction of Space 22. Don't worry about it. You did the right thing. Thanks, Riley."

"I'll catch you at school tomorrow," Riley replied, his expression relieved. "I don't ever want to face Sammy alone again, I can tell you that."

They both managed to laugh at that. Riley was a skinny kid who was clearly out of his league with the hefty Sammy.

===

Sally answered the door, immediately opening it to admit Jack. She turned away and headed to the stove, tending to whatever was cooking.

Jack glanced around and saw Sammy sitting in front of the TV.

"Hey, Sammy," Jack said, moving in front of the boy. "We need to talk."

"I'm busy and you're blocking my view." His tone was brutish and loud.

Jack took a quick step forward and thrust his face inches from the other boy. "Right. Now." He didn't put a hand on Sammy, but he knew he'd be obeyed. Jack turned away and headed back outside without looking to see if Sammy was following him.

"Whatta ya want?" Sammy asked, his voice almost quiet now.

Jack gestured. "Come on. I'm treating. We'll have something at McDonald's."

Once they had food and drinks, the two boys sat in the back of the room, in the most deserted area. They both ate in silence, Jack watching Sammy and pondering what approach he would take.

"Have you ever heard of Christmas Land?" Jack spoke so softly that Sammy had to lean forward to hear him.

"What?" Sammy's voice had taken on an equally conspiratorial tone.

"Christmas Land." Jack repeated, almost in a whisper now.

Sammy shook his head.

"It's special. We don't share it with just anybody, either. But you can find out, if you want to. But you have to be one of us. You can't keep give kids a hard time, or you'll be out. Are you interested?"

"You want me to join you guys?" Sammy's voice was incredulous.

"Of course we do!" Jack excuded enthusiasm and he broke into a wide grin.

Sammy's face changed and he offered a tentative smile in return. "Really?"

"We want all of you to join. Sally and Bobby, too."

"She won't say boo to her own shadow," Sammy scoffed. "And Bobby's a little menace. Are you sure."

He's protective of them! Jack was almost dumbfounded at the thought. Something in Sammy's tone made these feelings quite clear to Jack. It was an exciting revelation.

"Sammy, we like to include all the kids in the park, if we can. And I think you'd be a big help to me. If you want to try."

Sammy nodded. "Yeah, I'd like that. I've got a lot of free time, too."

Jack cleared his throat and yanked his hair, sitting up straight. His voice was more somber now. "But stealing. You've got to quit that. Do you want to tell me why you did it?"

Sammy's face was suddenly both angry and defiant. He shook his head fiercely.

"You know, I don't think you did it to be mean," Jack said, staring into Sammy's face. "But I can't help if you won't tell me the truth."

Jack could see that Sammy was struggling with himself, so he sat quietly eating french fries, letting his gaze fall from the boy's face.

"We needed food," Sammy finally managed, his voice breaking. "He forgets to get stuff and he doesn't come home. We have to eat."

Hungry kids weren't always skinny ones, Jack thought, looking at Sammy's round body. Of course, fat kids often ate all the wrong foods -- and McDonalds probably wasn't the best choice Jack could have made for his new friend.

New friend. The magic was still with him! Jack broke into a smile.

"Sammy, I swear to you I'll make sure you guys never go without again. But I'll keep your secret, too," he quickly added, seeing the fear on Sammy's face. "You don't have to worry. And you don't have to steal."

Jack wasn't sure how he was going to manage to provide groceries for three kids, but he didn't doubt for a minute that he'd manage it. It was corny, but 'where there's a will, there's a way' was certainly true enough!

"Do you promise?" Sammy's voice was anxious, nothing like his normal braggadocio.

"I'll do my best, that's my promise. I'm not perfect, but I try to do what I say I'll do. Okay?"

Sammy nodded and extended his hand. The two boys shook.

===

On Saturday, the entire gang gathered in the empty field behind the trailer park. There was an old cow shed there that had originally had three walls and a tin roof. Jack and several other boys had spent several months building a fourth wall out of scrap lumber. Many of the girls and younger boys had scavenged old blankets, using these to line the inside walls. The structure was far from perfect, but it kept out all but the coldest wind, and was dry even in the heaviest downpours. The old man who owned the land had 'caught' them there several years back, but was delighted to have the children use the shed and field to play in. "I used to like to play here meself, when I was your age," he told Jack, grinning a yellow-toothed grin. "There's pears and apples on those trees, and you can help yourselves," he added. "And now and then I'll have a treat for everyone."

"It's okay to store stuff here?" Jack asked, looking at the empty feeding bins with interest.

"I'll tell you what. I'll talk to somebody and even make it legal. This place will belong to you kids, forever. Even when I'm gone. Nobody will ever be able to sell the land, or try to force you to sell it. That's my promise."

So that was the year that Jack and his friends had invented Christmas Land.

A tall, barbed-wire fence kept out both bums and stray dogs, though Jack was sure that the old man guarded it, as well. They didn't have a lock on the door, and when Riley had suggested they buy a padlock, Jack had stubbornly disagreed. "This is Christmas Land," he said. "If somebody wants to come inside, we should let them come."

On this particular Saturday, the children were busy laying out the new snowflakes that they'd made. Old sheets purchased one at a time from the local Goodwill had been spread to cover the dirt floor, though Jack had wanted to be able to build a wooden one during the summer months. They'd tried to find enough wood to start the project, but had failed. It had been difficult enough coming up with wood for the fourth wall, a task that Jack believed the old man had covertly helped them to achieve. He hadn't given up the dream, but when August drew to a close, Jack knew he'd have to postpone the project until the following summer.

Jack moved around the room, greeting kids and laughing at the jokes and banter. He moved to the display of snowflakes and was quick to praise. "These are the best batch ever," he exclaimed, bending to lift a paper snowflake and hold it up for others to see.

Sammy and his siblings were the last there, making a late arrival just as Jack displayed the snowflake.

"What's that?" It was the first time any of them had ever heard Sally speak. Her voice was surprisingly deep pitched and melodious. Sally took a tentative step forward, reaching out her hand.

"Here," Jack said, placing the snowflake in her palm. "It's part of Christmas Land," he added, lifting both arms and gesturing around the room.

"Wow." Sammy moved through the large door and headed directly for one wall, his face lit up. "This is... this is..." The large boy was speechless.

"Last year we tried paper garlands and strings of popcorn," Davey said, walking to Sammy's side. "But we ended up eating the popcorn, so we had to be happy with the garlands. I think they turned out really nice," he added, lifting a ring and gently shaking it.

"It jingles." There was wonder in Sammy's voice.

"We got some small bells and tied them on. When we make a breeze in here, dancing and stuff, then they make a very cool sound," Riley said. He stood near Sammy, but outside the range of Sammy's large arms and hands.

Jack went across the room and put an arm around Sara, drawing her to Sammy's side. "Sammy, this is Sara. You know her, right?" He kept his tone neutral, and a gentle grip on Sara's trembling shoulder.

Sammy shoved a beefy hand into his jeans. When he pulled it out, there was a crumbled dollar bill in his palm. "Here," he said, extending it to Sara, his voice gruff. "Sorry. I didn't mean it."

Jack looked down at Sara, who turned her eyes to his. He nodded encouragement, but was silent. He needed to let them work it out for themselves.

"It's okay. Thanks," Sara said, her voice a childish squeak. She reached out a shaky hand and let Sammy drop the bill into it.

After Sara had scampered off to join Lucy and the other girls, Sammy turned to Riley. "Sorry," he muttered, dropping his reddened face.

Riley stuck out his hand and gripped Sammy's, pumping enthusiastically. "I'm sorry I smacked you," he said, grinning. "It's all good now."

Jack laughed, feeling too happy to contain his pleasure. "Anybody feel like singing a Christmas song?" he asked.

Riley nudged him in the ribs. "Hey, I thought you wanted to wait until October!"

Jack pointed to the calendar hanging near the door. "Close enough!"

Everybody grabbed a spot, some sitting on the make-shift benches, others on old folding chairs and the rest on the edges of feeding bins and the ground. Davey cranked up his boom box CD player and put in one of their favorite Christmas CDs. The talking and laughter quieted as the room burst into merry singing.

As one song ended, Jack jumped in, calling out, "Christmas Land is starting to glow!"

"Glow! Glow! Glow!" Every child began to chant together, ignoring the start of the next song.

"Look out world, here we come," Jack breathed, grinning. He turned in a slow circle, looking at each child by turn. "The magic," he whispered. "The magic is here."

They didn't leave until lunch time, Jack leading Sammy, Sally and Bobby to the corner store. "We'll get a few things," he said, thankful that Riley, Lucy and Davey had chipped in. Jack hadn't broken his promise, but he had told his friends he needed a loan for something 'important.' Without question, all three had managed to share both cash and cans of food.

The magic of Christmas Land was working -- just like it always did.

===

Lucy missed school on Monday, so Jack hurried directly to her house the minute he got back to the trailer park. He listened and listened, then rapped carefully on her window pane.

"I'll be right out," he heard Lucy say. A hand appeared and closed the window, without lifting the towel.

It's bad, Jack thought, wrapping his arms around himself and hugging tightly. He climbed down from the box and sat, trying to compose his face.

"Hi, Jack." Lucy's face was warm and her eyes seemed to dance, but she wasn't smiling.

"Hi. Missed you at school," he offered, standing.

They moved around the house and started walking aimlessly down main street, both silent.

Finally, Lucy took his hand, pulling him behind a clump of bushes. "Let's go to Christmas Land," she said. "I need to tell you something important."

He followed her along the narrow path, and both ducked through the spot in the fence where they'd tied up the barbed wire to make entrance easier. The nearby trees rustled with colorful leaves of yellow, orange and red as they headed to the cow shed door. Jack hurried to yank it open, knowing the large, warped door would often stick.

Once inside, he waited for Lucy to speak, but she was moving around the room, touching one decoration and then another.

Jack sat down and quietly watched, as Lucy stood staring at a the collage of photos that hung in the center of one wall. There were magazine pictures of Santa and Christmas trees, hand-drawn angels and photos of trailer park children -- all taped and glued and thumb-tacked to the huge square of cork that they had originally used as a make-shift bulletin board. Davey had scored with large plastic stars that glowed in the dark, purchased the previous autumn at a dollar store. These stars were plastered all around the outside edge of the board, making it stand out even when the room was bright with sunlight.

"Tell me," Jack urged her, unable to wait.

"We're moving," she answered, walking over to kneel beside him.

He was so shocked that he couldn't speak.

"Out of state," she continued. "Dad finally got a job, but we have to move."

"No." His voice was monotone and soft.

"You know I don't have a choice, Jack. It's not like I want to move."

"But what about me? What will I do without you?" He couldn't keep the plea from his voice or his eyes. He could feel tears prickling, threatening to leak and he blinked his eyes, willing himself not to cry.

"Is this about you, or about Christmas Land?" Lucy asked, her voice gentle.

Jack swallowed and tugged on his hair. "I'm sorry. It's about Christmas Land, of course. You already know I'll miss you."

Lucy nodded. "Of course I do. I'll miss you, too. But we'll both be okay. What we need to talk about is what will happen with Christmas Land. I'd like to take a piece of it with me, if it's okay. I think maybe we should start another Christmas Land, Jack. I could do that, if I knew you wanted me to."

Christmas Land without Lucy's smile, without her glow. Jack couldn't imagine it. How would they go on? How could he?

"Who will nag me about my schoolwork," he said, trying to make a joke of it.

Lucy leaned closer and lightly tapped his chest. "Wherever I am, I'm always in here, Jack. That's part of what we've always said -- what you've always told us. Don't you believe that?"

"But the magic... What about the magic? I feel like it's fading." He had to stop talking and take a deep breath. Jack could feel his heart pounding painfully and his hands ache with loss.

"You always said that we make the magic happen. I believe that, Jack. The magic can't fade. It's in each of us. And it's in you more than anyone."

Was it? Jack didn't feel magic today. He just felt lost and alone...

He was almost afraid to ask. "How soon do you leave?"

"Mom and Dad are packing up right now. Mom's friend Carrie is going to come and pack the rest, after we're gone. She'll ship it to us. We're leaving first thing in the morning, Jack."

Jack stood up and moved wordlessly to the collage, carefully pulling free several stars and photos. He piled these beside Lucy, then walked over to the new snowflakes and quickly sorted through them, pulling out his favorites and adding them to the stack.

"If you write me, I'll make a package and send more along later," he said, sitting beside his friend and taking one slim hand between both of his. "I want you to make an even better Christmas Land when you get to your new home, Lucky," he added, forcing himself to smile.

Lucy threw her arms around him and hugged Jack tightly. "Thanks, Jack."

"Christmas Land is bigger than anything that can happen to us, just like we've always said," Jack whispered. "I guess it's time to let it grow." It was time to let Lucy go, no matter how painful that was.

"I promise to make it just as special as you made it here, Jack. But I couldn't make it even a tiny bit nicer."

They sat together until the light began to fade, holding hands while the stars around the collage began to glow softly.

They walked back, and Lucy gave him one last hug, then walked into her trailer without turning around to look his way.

Jack stood for a few minutes and stared at the closed door, before finally heading down the street without a backward glance. It would be hard to sleep tonight, he knew.

But he had to make plans. Christmas Land would need him even more, with Lucy gone.

===

October was rainy, keeping the kids inside more than anyone liked. Jack still made his rounds and was still encouraging everyone to make their snowflakes, though he'd yet to make any himself.

Sammy had become his right-hand man, happily running errands for him all over the park, as well as making trips outside the park that were within walking distance. Sammy loved being useful and was thriving on the attention Jack gave him. A all the exercise seemed an added benefit, helping Sammy pant less while walking and playing -- and Jack was sure that Sammy's pants already looked a little less strained around the middle. He hoped he'd soon be able to get Sammy and his siblings to start dancing with the other kids, in time to take part in the upcoming Thanksgiving festivities.

Jack had kept his promise to be sure the three kids had food in the house, even though it had proved tougher than he'd expected. He'd also talked Kristin into helping arrange for the three to be part of the school lunch program, which provided for those in need to receive free lunches. Their father still seemed to barely show himself, but Jack stepped in and kept a close eye, with both Davey and Riley helping out.

Lucy sent frequent notes, though they were short. Jack knew it would talk a lot to suppress her bright spirit, though he could only guess how hard it must be to move to a new state, a new city and a new school -- especially with the school year already under way. All the kids helped pack up a box of items to mail her, and agreed they should come up with something 'special' to send her for the holidays.

Jack forced himself to carry on, knowing Lucy would expect nothing less than his best. His grades lifted a bit as he concentrated on finishing his homework each night, though he knew he'd never do all that well in class.

School was torture for Jack, who worked hard to be invisible. It was his nature to be outgoing and friendly, but he'd been rebuffed many times by kids who felt superior to him. The past year had been a rough one, when his father's drinking had lost him yet another job.

Their money had run out, and even water had been a luxury, with the ability to shower less and less frequent. Jack would always wince as he remembered the day he found a can of deodorant on his desk. He'd picked it up and shoved it quickly out of sight, but the hum of laughter in the classroom had made him flush with embarrassment.

The teacher had glanced his way, a look of pity on his face that stung worse than the giggles of the haughty girl who sat behind him. Teachers never seemed to make things easier, and Jack wondered why they were so impotent in situations like his.

He'd spent his entire life trying to jump in and protect other kids that were bullied and abused, without the slightest assistance from a teacher or other school staff person. Jack knew they weren't blind to what was happening, and he spent many wakeful hours late at night pondering the reasons.

One day while listening to a lecture and staring down at his desk during class, it had suddenly come to him. Teachers were even more powerless than he was! Regulations and fear kept them frozen, even when they wanted to help. 'They were kids once, too,' Jack reminded himself. Maybe they still were kids, in many ways. It was something to think about, anyway. Jack glanced across the room at his teacher, suddenly feeling sorry for the man. 'I guess it's not much fun to be an adult,' he decided, running his hand through his unruly hair.

Jack again resolved to look at adults with less negativity. It sometimes seemed like he was constantly reminding himself that grownups weren't the enemies, even when they might appear to be.

===

The Christmas Land shed had an old chalkboard propped in one corner that had been a gift from a departing teacher when she left the trailer park in July. Jack decided it was time to put it to good use, other than as a place for the little kids to draw.

He had Davey do the writing, knowing that his friend had the best hand of anyone in the park, including the adults. Each kid told Davey what costume, if any, he had ready for Halloween, and what plans had been made by the adult or adults in his life for activities that night. Jack had personally gone to every trailer to ask if the children could Trick or Treat as a group in the nearby mall, promising that he and the other older kids would be responsible for everyone. Almost every parent had agreed, so all that was left to do was to make sure no one lacked a costume and a bag to hold their candy as the big day came nearer.

The group met at least four days a week now, singing the silly turkey songs they'd learned in school, mixed with a few Thanksgiving hymns, for good measure. They were already practicing Christmas songs of all kinds, adding CDs when they could manage.

Laurie was given a guitar for her birthday, and began to strum away immediately. Soon they were able to sing certain songs with her guitar and Riley's harmonica as their musical accompaniment.

The day before Halloween, Jack walked up to the lunch line at school and heard a guy giving Sammy a hard time.

"Move to the back of the line, lard ass," the bigger boy ordered, sneering while several friends looked on, laughing. "You can take what's left over when the rest of us eat. You look like you could do without lunch for a month or two, at least."

Jack could see Sammy's face darken, so he stepped quickly to the boy's side. "What's going on here?" he asked, trying not to let his anger show in his voice.

"What's it to you?" the other boy asked, reaching out and giving Jack a rough shove.

"That's showing him, Buster!" one of his cronies called out.

"Buster, is it?" Jack could feel his face flushing and he struggled to keep control. "I don't think you want any trouble, do you?"

Jack and Buster locked eyes, and Buster quickly took a full step backward.

"Naw, hell, I don't want trouble. I was just tellin' Fatty here-"

Jack grabbed the front of Buster's shirt and pulled him forward, until their faces were inches apart. He spoke softly, keeping his tone as pleasant as he could. "Buster, Sammy here is a friend of mine. I don't really like it when people call him names. You probably wouldn't like it if somebody called you knucklehead, dumb bunny, would you?" He paused to give the boy time to shake his head.

"Great. Then we understand each other, don't we? The next time I catch you giving Sammy a hard time, you and I are going to do more than talk. And don't run to some teacher, because my parents don't give a shit if I beat somebody up every day of the week," he added, stretching the truth to make his point. "You and I don't have to be friends, but let's agree to respect each other. Okay?"

Jack knew that Buster was badly scared. He could feel the other boy trembling under his hand. He smiled and dropped the boy's shirt, extending his hand. Buster shook hands quickly then backed away. "No problem. I didn't know... Sam... Sammy was your friend."

Jack raised a hand and gestured his dismissal. "Sure, sure. No big deal. Come on, Sammy, I think you should be up front by now."

The other kids in line moved away to let Jack and Sammy pass. Jack stood by Sammy's side as the boy offered his lunch ticket and received his tray of food, then sat beside him while he ate.

"Sammy, if any kid picks on you -- ever -- I want you to come to me. I want you to show me each and every kid and tell me names. I'll take care of it." Jack watched, making sure the children sitting near Sammy heard his words. "Okay?"

Sammy nodded, grinning at Jack. "Whatever you say, Jack. Thanks."

Jack realized that he'd broken his vow to remain invisible, surprised to find that he was glad. It might not be worth standing up for himself, but it was a different story when it came to one of his friends.

==

Halloween was a huge success. The day after the kids met in the Christmas Land cow shed, pooling their wealth of candy and other Trick or Treat goodies. They divided it up, putting some aside for later and making sure that every child had a fair share.

Sammy surprised Jack by offering his own part as a present to send away to Lucy. Jack threw in several pieces of his own, and suddenly half the kids were doing the same. Lucy sent them all a lovely card of thanks, with a short note to Jack that read: "I've started it with four other kids. I'll let you know how it goes." Jack had good dreams that night.

In mid-November, Jack had Riley, Davey and Sammy join him while he made his rounds of the park. Each boy carried a notebook and pen and was prepared to scribble down whatever notes Jack suggested.

Jack wanted to find out the status of each of the children for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and make sure that no one would be left out of some kind of feasting.

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NaNoWriMo 2006 -- Charlie and Marilyn

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